The video-sharing website YouTube boasts more than a billion users across the globe, many of them visiting the site daily to watch the latest music videos. While this behavior might seem harmless, researchers warn of high exposure to alcohol and tobacco content among teenagers – particularly among young girls.

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Researchers found exposure to alcohol and tobacco content in music videos is much higher among teenagers than adults.

In a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, Dr. Jo Cranwell – of the Division of Epidemiology & Public Health UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies at the University of Nottingham – and colleagues reviewed teenagers’ exposure to tobacco and alcohol content in some popular music videos.

According to the authors, there is little research on how YouTube content impacts risky behavior among youth, despite some music videos containing alcohol and tobacco imagery, most of which is portrayed as positive.

Because music videos are mostly watched by adolescents, Dr. Cranwell and colleagues say it is possible that alcohol and tobacco content in this form of media promotes their use. However, they note that – until now – youth exposure to such content had not been quantified.

To address this research gap, the team assessed the tobacco and alcohol content of 32 of the most popular YouTube music videos of the top 40 chart songs in the UK between November 3rd, 2013, and January 19th, 2014.

The team assessed the number of 10-second intervals in each of these videos to calculate the average number of images, depictions or lyrics associated with alcohol and tobacco.

Then, the team analyzed the results of two nationally representative online surveys completed by 2,068 British teenagers aged 11-18 and 2,232 British adults aged 19 and older, using the information to calculate the viewing figures of these music videos.

Overall, the survey results suggested that the music videos had been viewed by 6% of adults and 22% of teenagers across the UK.

Fast facts about teen smoking
  • Each day, around 3,800 teenagers in the US under age 18 smoke their first cigarette
  • In 2014, 3 in every 100 middle school students reported smoking a cigarette in the past 30 days
  • 4 in every 100 middle school students reported using an e-cigarette in the past 30 days in 2014.

Learn more about smoking

The researchers calculated that between the release of the videos and the point of survey – an average of 7 months for adolescents and 10 months for adults – the videos delivered an average 1,006 million tobacco impressions and 203 million tobacco impressions to the British population.

“If these levels of exposure were typical, then in 1 year, music videos would be expected to deliver over 4 billion impressions of alcohol, and nearly 1 billion of tobacco, in Britain alone,” the authors note.

“Further, the number of impressions has been calculated on the basis of one viewing only; however, many of the videos had been watched multiple times, so this number is likely to be much bigger.”

While most of the tobacco and alcohol content was delivered to adults aged 25-34, the researchers found levels of individual exposure were almost four times higher among adolescents; they were exposed to an average of 12.1 alcohol impressions and 10.5 tobacco impressions, compared with 14.1 alcohol impressions and 2.9 tobacco impressions for adults.

Exposure to alcohol and tobacco content was highest among teenagers aged 13-15, with girls receiving significantly more impressions than boys.

Music videos that delivered the highest levels of tobacco impressions included “Trumpets” by Jason Derulo and “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, while “Timber” by Pitbull and “Drunk in Love” by Beyoncé had the highest alcohol content.

The researchers note that content of music videos is almost unregulated, but that this needs to change in order to reduce adolescent exposure to alcohol and tobacco content.

One effective measure, they suggest, could be to broadcast anti-smoking or anti-alcohol messages immediately before showing videos that contain such content.

They note that an even better strategy would be to eliminate such content completely. “Disney films has now announced that it will no longer make films including smoking,” they write. “We need a similar degree of social responsibility across the tobacco, alcohol and music industries.”

The researchers note that previous research has shown that exposure to tobacco and alcohol in movies encourages smoking and drinking among young people. As such, they say future research should investigate how such content in music videos impacts alcohol and tobacco use among adolescents.

Medical News Today recently reported on a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that found e-cigarette advertisements target around 70% of youths, increasing their use of the devices.